Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (PG-13)
Starring: Carrie Fisher
Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
End of an era.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth and final “Skywalker Saga” Star Wars movie. The series spans forty-two years. At age seven, I was squarely in creator George Lucas’ (stay on) target audience when the first movie (originally titled Star Wars, now referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) was released in 1977.
These movies—and action figures, books, comic books, soundtracks, TV series, etc—have been a significant part of my life for over four decades now. I realize there are scores of fans who have been similarly impacted by Lucas’ lucrative and legendary brainchild…perhaps you, dear reader, are one of them.
Saying goodbye to such a cherished mythos, and its bevy of beloved characters, has left me in an ineffable state. Though not quite like experiencing a death in the family, reaching the end of the closing credits of the final Star Wars film feels like a loss just the same; despite the fact that the franchise will continue on both big and small screens far, far into the future. Though the quality of the movies has widely varied, I’m Luke-after-Ben’s-death despondent now that the series has finally come to an end.
As I think about Skywalker, many words and phrases come to mind…
Rally. Course correct. Back on track.
Yes, I’m one of the legions of Star Wars fans who considered the previous film, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), to be a Death Star sized pile of Bantha Poodoo. If you have a spare half hour, you can read my review, which contains a scalding diatribe against the film’s many failings. To bottom line it for you, if you feel the way I do about The Last Jedi, you’ll probably enjoy the series capper. If you’re in the other camp, you might struggle to enjoy Skywalker.
In all fairness, Skywalker is cameo-heavy, overly sentimental at times and rather predictable throughout. Some things don’t add up (why was the fleet of Final Order Star Destroyers concealed for so long, how can Sith loyalists operate the vessels as well as trained Imperial crews and why are the capital ships so easy to destroy once their superlasers have been blasted a few times by Resistance fighters?), other things could’ve been better (character threads, i.e. the relationships between Rey (Daisy Ridley)/Finn (John Boyega) and Finn/Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), needed to be tidied up) and still other things are utterly daft (like when the spy telegraphs his identity with “I’m the spy!”). But overall, this is a solid effort and a fitting conclusion to Lucas’ enduringly popular work of light and magic.
Spoiler Alerts (from here on in): At the heart of every Star Wars film is family, specifically the Skywalker family (family, of course, also lies at the heart of the Disney Empire). The latest trilogy has layered identity on top of family. Where does Rey come from? Can sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) be redeemed and revert to his true self, Ben Solo?
As the embodiment of the yin-yang philosophy, Rey and Ren are light-dark side counterparts, respectively. It’s a fascinating role reversal that Rey descends from an evil family and becomes a Jedi, while Ren was raised by a good family and ends up a Sith. In this way, the protracted epic has modulated from being the chronicle of one family to the intersection of two Force-full families.
At several junctures in Skywalker, Rey is asked what her family name is and she awkwardly confesses that she doesn’t know (the impertinence of the little Aki-Aki girl is overdetermined since Rey’s first name should suffice for an informal introduction). At the end of the movie, Rey identifies herself as a member of the family that has loved and nurtured her all along. It’s a stirring scene that may have added spiritual significance for those who consider themselves grafted Gentiles (Romans 11:17-24).
The family theme extends beyond the movie’s characters to those in the audience. As a multigenerational family film, Skywalker will attract spectators of all ages. One way the movie has catered to its broad demographic is to give both young and adult audience members heroes to cheer for...clever.
Everyone who’s seen the trailer knows about the return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). As the final film in the series, Skywalker has attracted a number of new actors (Richard E. Grant, Keri Russell and Dominic Monaghan), as well as many headliners and supporting players from the original trilogy. Be on the lookout for a well-known side character who serves as Lando’s gunner. Eagle-eyed fans may also recognize one of the franchise’s major magic-makers as the disapproving tavern owner on snowy Kijimi.
The film presents several new concepts regarding Jedi/Sith abilities. The first deals with a person’s life force. Though never featured in any prior Star Wars movie, apparently Jedis/Siths have the capacity to leach away life force from others or transfer a portion of their own life force to another being to bring about rapid healing (Wolverine style).
Though Force Healing is a clever concept, it smacks of the same kind of plot gimmick that had R2-D2 sprouting leg rockets and taking flight just when the story called for it in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). Director J.J. Abrams and his team of writers have created a major discrepancy between their newly-minted Jedi skill and the well-established Star Wars canon. Case in point, if a Jedi has the means to heal someone else, even when that person has been run through with a lightsaber, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) need not have died in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).
In a similar vein, it was revealed in earlier movies that a Jedi, with the proper training, can fade from our plane of existence, i.e. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda (voiced and performed by Frank Oz). How then, can Ren accomplish such a feat? As a recent convert to the light side of the Force, how would Ren/Ben know how to achieve a Force Fade? Even Jedi Master Jinn didn’t have that advanced knowledge…his corpse was roasted on a pyre at the end of The Phantom Menace. Someone needs to write a Jedi Handbook—comprehensively detailing every mystical or superhuman power such light side guardians possess—to prevent future writers from succumbing to this kind of willy-nilly storytelling.
The Force Dyad (Ren’s terminology) is an intriguing aspect of this latter trilogy, and is made even more compelling by the fact that Rey and the audience can see what’s going on behind Ren, but the masked villain can’t visualize Rey’s surroundings. Since Rey and Ren are connected through the Force, objects can be conveyed from one of their locations to the other. In this way, Rey handing off a lightsaber to Ren, who’s in a different part of the citadel on Exegol, is one of the highlights of the film.
However, the sequence could’ve been ten times more mind-blowing. What if Rey had temporarily lost one of her two lightsabers (or Palpatine had confiscated one of them)? The action scene plays out exactly the same, with Rey dispatching the Emperor’s guards and Ren shredding his Knights, with one major exception…
Using the Force, Rey and Ren take turns using the solitary lightsaber, passing it from one location to another while working in concert to coordinate their attacks. Go ahead; re-choreograph the entire sequence in your mind with this new limitation. Instead of another “Oh look, Rey/Ren is kicking butt and their opponents don’t stand a chance” melee, this climactic lightsaber battle could’ve been the greatest fight scene this side of The Matrix (1999).
In addition to its missed opportunities, the film contains many other oversights and nitpicks. Near the beginning of the movie, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) engages in a dangerous (and dubious) piloting stunt known as “lightspeed skipping,” which involves a series of quick, successive jumps into and out of hyperspace. The maneuver, which places an inordinate amount of stress on a ship, is made even more dangerous by the fact that you can come out of hyperspace too close to an asteroid or other solid object (smuggler’s warning).
The TIE fighters pursuing the Millennium Falcon stay right on the freighter’s tail the entire sequence. How? Even though it was established in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) that Special Forces TIE fighters have hyperdrives, how are the enemy ships able to precisely match ace pilot Poe’s every maneuver since they have no idea what he’ll do next? Either the TIE pilots are clairvoyant or they have Sith-like reflexes.
Abrams is notorious for featuring purely self-indulgent scenes (reference the two arctic creatures pursuing Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek) in his action movies. Here, Rey cuts a wing off Ren’s TIE fighter in a drawn-out spectacle. Though Rey’s Matrix-style slo-mo leap is dazzling, the rest of the scene is utterly gratuitous…and ultimately superfluous. We know Ren isn’t going to fire on Rey, so why does he attempt the low-altitude flyover? Especially since he risks losing his ship (and his life—surely he would’ve gotten a concussion from that crash) in the process.
Ren exits his mangled cockpit (without a scratch, mind you) and gets into a tug-of-war with Rey. Instead of rending a lightsaber, as they had done in The Last Jedi, Rey and Ren rip apart a troop transport. Rey escapes and Ren is left to hitch a ride (although, if Ren really wanted to apprehend Rey, he could’ve prevented her ship from taking off). Though the Force struggle is suspenseful, the entire sequence lacks motivation…and logic.
Even though spectral Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lifting his X-wing fighter out of the water is a nice callback to his failure to accomplish a similar feat in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it creates a gap in logic, namely, how can a ship that’s been submerged for years still operate? A couple lines of dialog could’ve rectified this flaccid plot point:
Terrific! Now how am I supposed to fly it?
(with a twinkle in his eye)
Don’t worry. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to fix a waterlogged X-wing.
Another snafu deals with the Falcon’s rough landing on Kef Bir (the non-Ewok Endor moon). Though we’re told the ship’s landing gear is busted, shouldn’t Poe be able to gently land the ship in a field, even with only one good arm (the other is in a sling)? If the landing required two hands, why couldn’t Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) have parked the ship? Or, for that matter, why couldn’t Rey, using the Force, have given them a soft landing?
Aside from a really nice shot of the Falcon and the furrowed grass behind it (which visually recalls the skid mark in the sand made by R2-D2 and C-3PO’s (Anthony Daniels) deserted escape pod in A New Hope), the only reason the crash landing is in the story is to introduce us to Jannah (Naomi Ackie), who conveniently knows exactly where to find the specific parts needed to fix the Falcon. Contrived! Fetching the parts delays the departure of our heroes, which gives Rey, and then Finn and Jannah, time to have a sidebar adventure on the gigantic wreckage out in the ocean.
The scene where Finn and Jannah get picked up by the Falcon also contains a continuity problem. After jumping on top of the Falcon, Finn and Jannah look over at the exploding Star Destroyer. The next shot shows the Falcon executing a sharp turn and quickly ascending toward the camera. Poor Finn and Jannah, who wouldn’t have had enough time to enter the Falcon before the ship executed its vertical pivot, would’ve been thrown clear of the rapidly accelerating ship (remember, they’re still inside Exegol’s atmosphere, so unless they borrowed gravity boots from the Star Trek universe, Finn and Jannah would’ve dropped like rocks).
Bringing back Palpatine—the last time we saw the hooded heavy was in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) when he fell down the Death Star’s reactor—seems more like an expedient stopgap than a well considered plot decision. Since Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) was such a joke, Abrams was forced to come up with a big league villain for the final film. I just wish he hadn’t rehashed so many characters and story elements (like the derelict Death Star, even though it makes for a looming, unsettling set piece) in his Star Wars films.
Though it would be easy to nitpick this film to death (more than I already have), out of reverence for what the series has meant to so many, myself included, I’ll abstain. Skywalker is a triumphant ending to one of the grandest sci-fi sagas of all time. And, as one of the movie’s many grace notes, Chewie finally gets his medal…the circle is now complete. Speaking of cyclical symbolism, this film ends at the Lars homestead on Tatooine, just as Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) did to close out the prequel trilogy.
So, where does the franchise go from here? More TV series? More ancillary films? Another trilogy? With such an uncertain future, it’s a good thing we have the Force to guide us.
Rating: 3 out of 4